July 8, 2011
On June 16, the resplendent parlor of the El Paso Club was besieged by an insurgency.
A small cadre had used the club’s bylaws to force members to vote on whether, after 134 years, the venerable old gentlemen’s club, which has long been the seat of power in the Pikes Peak region, should finally admit women.
It was the club’s first such vote and comes at a critical moment when, some members say, the club must change or die.
On voting day, a crowd of successful, graying gentlemen gathered in the East Room of the club’s mansion at 30 E. Platte Ave.
Surrounded by dark wood bookshelves, fine oil paintings and an antique tile fireplace, members debated whether staying the same or changing was the “only way” to preserve the club.
Marvin Strait, a successful accountant and club member for 30 years, stood up first. He had forced the vote and wanted to make his case. The El Paso Club, with a membership of 293, had lost almost a quarter of its members in a decade. Because of this, he said, the club was raising dues, which might drive out more members. If trends continued, he warned, the club could slide into “a death spiral.”
The club once was synonymous with power in Colorado Springs, its membership packed with the most influential businessmen, judges, doctors and politicians.
A century ago, Strait said in a resolution passed out to members, it was perfectly acceptable to deny women the right to vote and to participate. “At the risk of understatement, many things have changed,” he said. “And as we well know, those who cannot or will not adapt to a new and changing world are relegated into irrelevance.”
The current model of excluding women was, he said, “outdated and damaging,” and women must be admitted immediately.
Contacted by The Gazette after the meeting, Strait referred questions about the vote to club president Tom Dalsaso Sr.
Dalsaso, who opposed admitting women, did not return calls for comment.
Next, Randy Kilgore, a prominent insurance agent and longtime member, stood up to push to keep membership men-only.
He argued that the El Paso had a long history of being men-only, and members had a duty to uphold the tradition.
He warned that, far from saving the club, letting in women would drive members away.
“We can’t decimate a 130-year-old men’s club to let in a few women. It would be the end of the club,” he told The Gazette.
When ballots were counted 31 percent voted to allow women members, 69 voted against.
ONE OF FEW HOLDOUTS
The El Paso Club was founded in 1877 as an English-style aristocratic club where, according to an announcement in The Gazette at the time, “Congenial spirits from the east” could indulge in “billiard, card and reading rooms for the purposes of social enjoyment among its members.”
Though men’s clubs of the sort had been popular in London and eastern cities for decades, the El Paso was the first of its kind between Chicago and San Francisco. The mostly Quaker founders specifically forbid “gambling, bringing intoxicating liquors or firearms.”
Some parts of the founders’ vision stuck. Others did not.
The group soon let gambling and drinking rules slide. The club became known for its poker games and lavish soirees, and it concocted elaborate schemes to get around Colorado Springs’ laws banning saloons.
But the club kept the rule barring women. And kept it. And kept it.
Almost all of the other blue-blooded gentleman’s clubs in the country, from Seattle’s Raineer Club to Boston’s Algonquin Club, integrated in the 1980s and 1990s. The El Paso is one of the few holdouts.
From the start the El Paso Club counted the who’s who of the community as its members: bankers, industrialists, lawyers, railroad men. Membership has included most of the city’s mayors, most of the city’s councilmen and most of The Gazette’s publishers.
Gen. Ulysees S. Grant stopped by for a game of poker in 1880 and humorist Oscar Wilde, dressed in velvet, visited in 1882. Inventor Nikola Tesla feasted there in 1899.
When the Cripple Creek gold rush started, the club added newly minted millionaire mine owners such as Winfield Scott Stratton and Spencer Penrose.
Because of its influential membership, the club was pivotal in key decisions that made Colorado Springs what it is today. It was a war room for mine owners during the massive Cripple Creek labor strikes of 1894.
It was the rallying point when the Klu Klux Klan took over the state Legislature in 1924 and was harassing local business owners. Members of the club banded together, threatened to publish a roster of Klan members in The Gazette, and drove the Klan out of town.
It was the launching point of an effort in 1940 to attract an Army base to the region. That move, along with a similar El Paso-backed bid for the Air Force Academy, sparked what is now a thriving regional defense industry worth an estimated $6.5 billion per year.
“In the 1970s all of the City Council and the mayor were members,” said Lindsay Fischer, a local attorney and member since 1972. “Council would have its meeting in the morning. If you did not like what was being said, they all had lunch at the club and you could bring it up there away from the hoi polloi without embarrassing yourself.”
But Fischer, who voted to allow women, said times have changed. A growing number of judges, doctors, lawyers and politicians are women who can’t join the club. And more and more men don’t join because they don’t want to be seen as being bigoted.
“The fact that we don’t let girls in has made us irrelevant,” Lindsay said.
The club has to choose, he said: It can be all men, or it can be the who’s who. But it can no longer be both.
CLUB'S RELEVANCE QUESTIONED
Rules limiting women at the club and the struggle against them has been going on for a century.
In 1906, women were allowed into the downstairs dining room if accompanied by male members. But they could not get a drink in the men’s lounge or set foot in the club’s upstairs rooms. That year Spencer Penrose’s wife, Julie, led an effort to get a women’s lounge, known as the Boudoir, added. The men relented, but women had to enter through a separate door.
In the intervening century, much has changed in the United States. Women won the right to vote and have become senators, governors, supreme court justices, astronauts, Nobel-prize winning scientists, CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations. They now make up almost half of students in medical and law schools.
But they are still not allowed upstairs at the El Paso Club.
“Women have triumphed,” Lindsay said. “They don’t need old bucks like us. I have spoken to several women around here who make a big difference and they say, ‘Why would I want to belong to your club?’”
Several influential local women agreed. While they would like to see the club open, they say it has lost its central role in the city.
“Why would I want to join?” said former Colorado Springs Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, echoing the comments of many. “This is 2011, not the turn of the century. It just does not matter that much anymore.”
'NOT FAIR TO SINGLE' OUT
Defenders of the El Paso Club’s men-only rules are quick to point out that there are plenty of other single-sex organizations in the city from the all-women Artemis club to the all-male Cooking Club.
“It’s not fair to single us out as the bad guys,” Kilgore said.
In fact, he said, the club plans to start offering “corporate memberships” that will allow companies to use the club’s dining and meeting rooms.
“If an all-woman law firm wants to join, they can,” Kilgore said.
Of course, the women still won’t be able to vote or venture up to the club’s second floor.
“Why would women go for a second-class deal like that?” Fischer said.
He does not expect the plan to work and said proponents of admitting women will continue their efforts.
Allowing women as full voting members is the only way forward, he said. “If we don’t do it relatively soon, the club is going to be history.”
He pointed to the Winter Nights Club, an all-male banquet club started at The Broadmoor in 1902. In 2004, after an ugly debate, the club opened to women.
“It was aging and shrinking,” former club president Larry Gaddis said.
Now, Gaddis said, women make up a third of the membership and have brought with them a new generation of young professional men.
“One of the advantages of any club is the people you meet and the contacts you make. The people now at the Winter Nights are the movers and the shakers,” he said.
“I have friends who groused about the change,” he said. “We had members who quit. Anytime in this world you have a change, you are going to have people who are upset, even if it is a change for the better.”
Contact the writer: 636-0223